The physical human being–the collection of physical and chemical microsystems comprising the human body–is an immensely complicated structure that we invariably benefit by studying. On one side of this innumerably-sided research-benefit coin lies the fulfillment of our curiosity about our existence in light of the particularly haunting truth that we need not necessarily fulfill it; on another is the sheer whimsy of a search for pattern and reason in such a large and disharmonic set of possible configurations.
Looking into the hazy worlds of biophysics–where the physical human sits waiting to be completely discovered–we see one thing clearly: it is an extraordinary puzzle. We could let it consume all of human thought and arrive at theories that would allow us to rebuild ourselves and eliminate all disease. Recent forays into this haze have netted us such works as a complete map of the human genome and increasingly accurate pictures of how these sequences apply to our structure as a whole.
We have, however, reached a number of roadblocks in our discoveries. For instance, in taking the information contained in a DNA sequence to its functional form, called a protein, we lose our notion of the shape of the protein in exchange for a detailed picture of its atomic structure. The panacea for this predicament is currently under assessment, but one suggestion by a team of numerical biologists and computer scientists at Stanford seems valuable: distributed computing.
Far from being a new idea, distributed computing is the concept that what takes one computer a year to figure out should take 20 computers a month. The application of this idea to computationally-heavy problems like protein folding is the exact same as mom’s philosophy on the family laundry: if we all fold, we’ll get the job done quicker. The idea was implemented with the help of the general public online as the Folding@Home project based at Stanford.
So we are left near where we started–a world where we can gaze, mouths agape at our ideas and solutions, only now our wonderment is multiplied by our own participation in the solution. Imagine: not only a cure for Alzheimer’s, but one you helped find!
Which makes natural human stupidity hit all the harder when it does. Specifically, one should turn their attention towards the recent announcement-cum-viral marketing campaign by Sony that it’s new electronic entertainment console, the PlayStation 3, will naturally tap into the folding system and start doing calculations when it’s left dormant. That’s right: the christmas season will officially see us hit the malls to snap up the only entertainment system that also helps people.
Not that there’s anything wrong with tapping into an as yet unnoticed network and taking advantage of its power for the benefit of mankind, other than the fact that it will obviously never happen. Nobody does anything for the benefit of mankind, especially not Sony–whose strict pro-monopoly trademark and licensing policies killed the BetaMax and the MiniDisc. Appaently, the marketing wizards over there are aware that appealing to your demographic’s false sense of altruism is a way better campaign than putting your processor speed in a big italic helvetica typeface on posters everywhere.
One can already hear children baying for PS3s; “But Mom, if you don’t buy me one, we won’t be able to cure Grandpa’s Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease and he’ll go crazy!” Don’t mistake those warm fuzzies, though. They just want the system to blow up hookers on Grand Theft Auto: 10, or whatever the sequel is. Anything else is incidental. In fact, systems countrywide probably won’t even be left dormant cause that “I’m ON!” LED is bright enough to blind bats.
So this is a warning: don’t buy into the bullhonkey! For those legitimately interested in seeing into the world of the physical human, visit http://folding.stanford.edu and you can do anything those slick marketing execs at Sony would have you unwittingly do, except on your own terms.